Read Your Way Through the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

One grand feature of border culture is the lure of a bargain. For decades, the clarion call of cheap muffler (“mofle”) shops drew tourists south; now, it’s cheap dentures and Viagra. So let us offer a one-stop classic, the anthology Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots and Graffiti From La Frontera.” Edited by Tijuana’s greatest literary son, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, along with El Paso’s late, great Bobby Byrd and his son John William Byrd, this wild anthology covers the good, the bad and the ugly. Many of the greatest border thinkers and writers are contained within its covers: Charles Bowden, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sam Quinones, Juan Villoro and Doug Peacock (model for the infamous hero of Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”), among others. Funky, funny, literary, angry — it will show you things you may have wondered about and things you might not have imagined.

Even if you do not read poetry, the borderlands require it. In a place both lush and austere, alien and homey, full of symphonies of languages and accents, smells and sounds, silence and raucous music, nothing can touch the experience of being there like poetry. It is not a coincidence that most of the writers on my list are also poets. They will transport you.

Ofelia Zepeda, a 1999 MacArthur fellow, is a Tohono O’odham poet of such elegant and exact rhetoric, such integrity of culture and vision, that you miss her quiet genius at your own risk. She gave the songs of the Tohono O’odham back to the land. Come to the chapels of her books “Ocean Power: Poems From the Desert” and “Where Clouds Are Formed.

I highly recommend a book that gives me endless delight as a reader and endless inspiration as a writer: Harry Polkinhorn and Mark Weiss’s seminal anthology “Across the Line/Al Otro Lado.” It covers the broad and surprising corpus of Baja California’s poetry, from Indigenous chants to postmodern epics, and it includes works that reflect the flavored cross-genre/cross-cultural/cross-border adventures the writers foresee in the distance of this decade.

Arizona’s first poet laureate, Alberto Ríos, born in Nogales, Ariz., is a true writer of the borderlands. Though all of his poetry books are excellent, “A Small Story About the Sky” remains my favorite. However, of particular interest for this list is “Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir.”

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